Umayma al-Zawahiri on Women’s Role in Jihad

In December 2009, al-Sahab released a missive entitled “Letter to My Muslim Sisters” (risala ila al-akhawat al-muslimat) by Umayma al-Zawahiri – Ayman al-Zawahiri’s wife. The letter is addressed to three categories of Muslim women:

(1)    To the female jihadis (murabitat and mujahidat – I shall return to these terms later) in the Islamic umma. She believes that like her, these women have sacrificed their all; and despite their loss of loved ones and separation from family, their situation is one of grace, for they are ‘content with the honors God has bestowed upon us; He elected us from among all his servants by blessing us with [being part of] jihad in His path to make His religion triumphant and make His word supreme.’ Umayma al-Zawahiri urges these female jihadis to remain steadfast on that same jihadi path, for ‘victory is near’. God, she assures them, is not about to forsake them and they shall either be rewarded with victory or martyrdom, ‘each is sweeter than the other.’ She reminds herself and her fellow female jihadis of the female Companions who fought alongside the Prophet Muhammad and showed more courage than many men at the time.

(2)    To the Muslim women who are imprisoned by the Pharaohs/despots (tawaghit), by which she means the regimes in the Arab and Islamic world. Umayma al-Zawahiri assures these women that they are always on the jihadis’ minds and that the mujahidin shall exert every effort to release them.

(3)    The bulk of Umayma al-Zawahiri’s missive is dedicated to all other Muslim women. To begin with, she calls on them to observe Islamic law, especially to maintain their commitment to donning the veil. The campaign against the veil, she explains, represents the most intense battle between Islam and unbelief (kufr). In her mind, abandoning the veil is the thin end of the wedge: ‘if a woman were to abandon [the modesty] of her appearance and covering herself, this is [necessarily] followed by a series of other [neglects] that push her away from her religion’ (this warning reminds me of that of a (French) nun: ‘qui prend la main, prend le bras; qui prend le bras, prend le tout!’).

Umayma al-Zawahiri urges these Muslim women to bring up their children on the love of jihad in God’s path, ‘to goad their brothers, husbands and sons to defend Muslims’ territories and properties … to assist the (male) jihadis with prayers and money.’ She is keen to emphasize that the role of the Muslim woman is critical, it is therefore important that she ‘should work alongside the man in defense of her religion, territory and to defend them in her person (tudafi‘ bi-nafsiha). If she cannot do so [by donating] her money, or if she cannot do so by way of reaching out to her Muslim sisters through missionary activities in mosques, schools, colleges and homes, she should do so through the Internet where she could write her religious mission, disseminate it and spread the mission of the jihadis.’

Does Umayma al-Zawahiri support military jihad for women? Her views on this question are open to interpretation. On the one hand, and in addressing this specific question, she says that ‘jihad [today] is an individual duty incumbent upon every Muslim man and woman, but the path of fighting is not easy for women, for it requires a male companion with whom it is lawful for a woman to be’. She adds that there are many other ways that women could fulfill their duty, ‘we put ourselves in the service of the jihadis, we carry out what they ask, whether in supporting them financially, serving their [practical] needs, supplying them with information, opinions, partaking in fighting or even [volunteering to carry out] a martyrdom operation.’ On the other hand, she argues that ‘our principal role … is to protect the jihadis [through] bringing up their children, [managing] their homes, and [keeping] their secrets.’

Women who wish to be guided by Umayma al-Zawhairi’s advice can therefore read into her missive both a military calling for themselves or a peaceful one that translates into supporting the jihadis from home. Leah Farrall observes that jihadi forums have recently ‘become quite an open and accepting platform for female supporters of the jihad to join in.’ Should we assume that Umayma al-Zawahiri’s statement signals a potential possibility that the jihadis would embrace an active military role for women on the battlefield? Jihadi ideologues have often used the term mujahidat to designate the wives, sisters and daughters of jihadis who do not necessarily take part in military jihad. But, to my knowledge, they do not use the term ‘murabitat’, which, I think, is significant.

The term ‘murabitat’ is the feminine active participle formed with the verb ‘rabata’ and shares the same root as the term ‘ribat.’ When used in a military context, the term ‘ribat’ designates a place on the frontier where the ‘murabitun’, military troops, assemble (historically on their horses) in preparation to fight the enemy. The term ‘murabitat’ is the feminine plural of ‘murabitun’ and therefore could be understood to designate female warriors. Jihadi literature is littered with the terms ‘murabitun’ and ‘ribat’, the latter, as Umayma al-Zawahiri states, designates places like Palestine, Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Somalia.

The jihadis do not have female ideologues of the stature that Zaynab al-Ghazali for instance represented for the Muslim Brotherhood. But it has to be said that jihadi ideologues and leaders have not been consistent or explicit on the question of whether women should take an active part in military jihad; in my view, this issue is the Achilles’ heel in their theory of jihad: when the jihadis argue that the classical/medieval defensive legal doctrine of jihad applies today, they generally present a plausible argument as to why jihad is the only viable path that could free them from their own ‘apostate’/unjust regimes and these regimes’ Western supporters. Despite their clarity and consensus on this point, the jihadis are quite ambiguous as to whether the classical defensive legal doctrine of jihad applies to women today, as the classical doctrine stipulates. In making their case for jihad, today’s jihadis are keen to cite the classical jurists who were in agreement that when the territory of Islam is invaded, jihad is considered to be a defensive warfare and it becomes ‘an individual duty (fard ‘ayn) incumbent upon each Muslim man and woman.’ Accordingly, in ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam’s words, ‘a boy is permitted to go out to fight without his father’s permission, a wife without her husband’s, and he who is in debt without his creditor’s’.  Yet ‘Azzam who was critical in making this defensive legal doctrine a cornerstone of the jihadis’ worldview, shied away from making the duty incumbent upon women, as the classical doctrine stipulates. In his Ilhaq bi-al-Qafila (Join the Caravan [of Jihad]) which he wrote to rally Arabs to join jihad in Afghanistan, he explicitly stated that ‘Arab women cannot take part in fighting, because Afghan women have not yet done so.’

In his al-‘Umda (p. 27),  Dr Fadl argues that women are to take up military jihad under one condition: only when the enemy invades Muslim territory and also comes into their homes. Since it is possible that the Muslim woman may have to defend herself under this specific circumstance, Dr Fadl argues that it is incumbent upon her to receive basic military training and learn how to use military equipments so that she can be ready to repel her attackers.

It is noteworthy that Ayman al-Zawahiri, Umayma’s husband, is not clear on this question either. When he was asked in his ‘Town Hall’ meeting in 2008, what is the highest rank occupied by a woman in al-Qa‘ida, he responded that there are no women in al-Qa‘ida, but ‘the mujahidat (female jihadis accompanying their husbands) are doing a heroic job watching over their homes and their children.’

As the jihadis admit, according to the classical defensive legal doctrine of jihad, Muslim women are under no obligation to seek anyone’s permission to fight. Why then do jihadi leaders and ideologues deny women the fulfillment of this individual duty? Based on the jihadi literature I have read, Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi (killed in 2006) is the most explicit and consistent on this issue. In one of his statements entitled ‘Ilhaq bi-al-Qafila’ (Join the Caravan [of Jihad] – the same title as ‘Azzam’s treatise cited above),  al-Zarqawi declares: ‘the war broke out … if you [Muslim men] are not going to be chivalrous knights in this war (fursan al-harb), make way for women to wage it… Yes, by God, men have lost their manhood.’

Was al-Zarqawi trying to shame those Muslim men who have not taken up jihad? No doubt. But he had no qualms adding his views as to the sort of women he wants to see on the battlefield: ‘we do not want men like Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, ‘Ali (i.e., the four Rightly Guided Caliphs), Sa’d, al-Miqdad, Talha and al-Zubayr (i.e., Companions of the Prophet) … instead we want men like Safiyya.’ By Safiyya, he meant Safiyya bt. ‘Abd al-Muttalib (paternal aunt of the Prophet). She is said to have taken part in the Battle of Badr and she was also wounded during the Battle of Uhud when she saved the Prophet’s life by taking a spear that was targeting him (see Amira Sonbol, Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures).

Umayma al-Zawahiri also cites Safiyya as a model to emulate; in addition, she cites Umm ‘Umara who is also said to have taken part in several military battles alongside the Prophet and was wounded during the Battle of Yamama. Is Umayma al-Zawahiri reclaiming for Muslim women their right and duty to take part in military jihad, as the classical defensive legal doctrine mandates? We must await further clarification from her on this question.

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3 Responses

  1. Just on the verb Rabata, it means ‘to tie a knot’, quite significantly it is the knot that ties the nomad’s tent/home, it is the basis of survival, the vital knot. The active participle murabbita(t) is formed on the form II of this verb, that which extends the meaning to ‘to turn into’ ‘to make’ and so here ‘to make a knot’. The important point being that this reinforces – without being explicitly explanatory – the role that muslim women are said to bear: the active knot/link in muslim communities, the ones that make/tie that (vital) link. It is therefore a natural slide that in times of war muslim women’s role is that of support OUT of the field or ON the field. The emphasis is that they remain/stay and do not flee. This I believe is the point of murrabitat in modern times: a reminder to the men (not the women) of muslim society’s structure. The extent of violence on women perpetrated not by foreign forces but by the muslim men that partake (or not) in jihad is such that communities are in shattered pieces, and the potential of for a successful Jihad is diminished.

  2. I don’t think there’s any ambiguity in it really, I think the message is that the ‘fundamental’ commitment of women is to the family but ‘martyrdom operations’ are equally permissible, although of a lesser priority.

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